Pleasure Boaters and PFDs

This archived article is from April 2004. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

Freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers cover nine per cent of Canada’s total area, and our country is bounded by three oceans. With this abundance of water, it is not surprising that 10 million Canadians are boaters. Powerboats, canoes and sailboats are the most popular pleasure craft. Fishing, hunting and partying are often associated with boating.

Boating is the number one cause of drowning in Canada. In 2000, about one-third of all water-related deaths occurred when boating. Eighty-five per cent of the boating deaths in 2000 (and closer to 90 per cent over the past 10 years) had one common factor — the victim was not wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) or life-jacket.

To wear or not to wear?

In 2000, the Canadian Coast Guard’s Office of Boating Safety commissioned an observational study of boats six metres or less that established as a baseline that only 20 per cent of Canadian boaters wear PFDs.

Subsequent surveys revealed more useful information about Canadians’ attitudes towards PFDs:

  • Decisions to wear are often based on the amount of risk present.
  • Most people would wear a PFD if asked to do so by the operator of the boat.
  • The more often someone engages in a boating activity, the lower the perceived risk and the lower the wear rate.
  • Most boaters think boating activities would be safer if they wore a PFD.
  • More than 90 per cent have the right number of PFDs on board.

Most people realize the value of flotation devices and carry them. Why, then, the low wear rate? Boaters blamed discomfort, lack of mobility to hunt and fish, or stained and smelly material.

The Coast Guard’s research indicates that any campaigns to increase wear must start with public education about life-jackets and PFDs, and the features now available on the market.

A life-jacket is not a PFD

Many Canadians don’t know the difference between a PFD and a life-jacket. Nor do they realize these devices have become easier to wear and move around in. The bulky, ugly old orange life-jacket is a thing of the past for pleasure boaters.

Originally, life-jackets were designed for professional mariners, who might be thrown into the water face down and unconscious in an emergency at sea. A life-jacket turns the wearer into a face up position. It must be either red, orange or yellow so it can be seen by search and rescue teams in a vast expanse of water. It is worn loose, to let water flow underneath and turn the wearer face up.

Pleasure boating, in general, does not demand the high level of performance offered by life-jackets. (However, rafters are safer in a life jacket, which helps assure the mouth and nose are out of water within five seconds of falling in; with a PFD, it is possible to float face down.) PFDs are designed to keep a conscious person's head out of water in calm conditions and assist them in rough water. PFDs are designed for constant wear, and must be worn snug.

New PFDs offer comfort, style and flexibility, with a wide range of models, sizes and colours. Indeed, there’s a PFD for just about every body type, taste and purpose. Manufacturers and safety officials hope boaters will look at today’s PFD as a fashion accessory they want to wear.

Some PFDs are inherently bouyant (with foam panels). Others are inflatable, and come in vest or suspender-type styles. You can find PFDs tailor-made for specific activities such as canoeing and kayaking, water skiing, and fishing. PFDs come in a wide range of trendy and attractive colours. There are PFDs with hypothermia protection, a valuable feature in Canada’s cold waters. Children’s PFDs come in a variety of sizes.

Life-jackets must be approved by Transport Canada, PFDs by the Canadian Coast Guard, Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Education and Regulation

The new, attractive PFDs are expected to increase wear rates. In addition, public education is needed. However, past campaigns have had only minimal impact on wear rates. The Coast Guard is using its research as the basis for a more effective communications strategy to persuade Canadian boaters to wear their PFDs.

Pleasure boaters are already subject to regulation. Small Vessel Regulations include the safety equipment that must be on board and safety precautions to be taken before and during the boat trip, and impose penalties for careless operation of a vessel. Collision Regulations require the operator to proceed at a safe speed, maintain a constant lookout, and use every available means to avoid a collision. Operator competency requirements came into effect in 1999; all operators will require proof of competency by 2009.

Irresponsible boaters can be charged under the Criminal Code of Canada for such offences as operating a vessel dangerously, operating a vessel when impaired, towing waterskiers improperly, failing to stop at the scene of an accident, and operating an unseaworthy vessel.

Some suggest that educational efforts will succeed in increasing PFD use only if they are combined with mandatory wear legislation. Others think the best results will come from investing in training and education to achieve voluntary compliance, combined with countermeasures targeting non-compliant groups.